(Originally posted December 2011 at Cinemachine)
A nighttime Halloween party. As children laugh, run and play in their costumes, one child clad in ghost sheets invites another boy and girl to come see the “bag of jewels” he’s found in the nearby forest. We’re shown via flashback that this gullible couple are bullies, and the ghost kid was apparently the target of their cruelty. As the boy bully nears a bag placed precariously next to some sort of ditch, ghost kid sneaks up from behind and gently pushes the tricked bully down the hole and out of sight.
Abruptly, the swelling musical score to this scene cuts off in mid-note and flashing lightning accompanies two shots alternating back and forth: a moving teddy bear with glowing eyes – and a deep hole full of some shifting, hairy…things. The movie’s title is superimposed, fading from yellow to red: THE PIT.
Persons experiencing confusion at this obtuse introduction, take heart. The film is, indeed, somewhat incompetently made and totally unsure of itself. There is a kid, and a pit full of things, and a teddy bear, but anyone seeking reason or answers for them will be sorely disappointed.
The Pit is far and away one of the most baffling and intriguing titles from the 80s independent exploitation era; an adolescent revenge fantasy (not uncommon to the genre) by way of fantastical fairy tale (there are monsters and a living doll) filtered through the uncomfortably sleazy eye of a hacky director whose primary concern seemed to be including gratuitous nudity, or to at least show his actresses doing aerobics or jogging, as often as possible.
Jamie (Sammy Snyders, fresh from playing Tom Sawyer on the TV series Huckleberry Finn and His Friends) is a young boy who doesn’t fit in. He also has an active imagination – not only having conversations with his teddy bear, but also a deep dark pit full of monsters in the local woods. Or are they real? At first the viewer rationalizes that both aberrations are figments of a troubled boy’s imagination, until the film shows Jamie taking revenge on local bullies and troublesome adults by tricking them into the pit where they become the creatures’ lunch. Meanwhile, Jamie’s babysitter Sandy (Jeannie Elias, soon to become a successful voice actress in animated TV shows like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show) is the only adult watching him while his parents are out of town – and in a recipe for disaster, she’s Jamie’s first crush.
The monsters at the bottom of the pit are believed by Jamie to be prehistoric troglodytes. These trogs are played by little people in fur costumes with immobile pig-like masks, and they’re filmed with barely any regard to covering up the obvious shortcomings of cheap makeup special effects. The burden of their effectiveness is left to the sound effects of their continual roars (which sound more like the MGM lion than primordial beasts) and the bombastic strings and horns of the musical score by Victor Davies.
Jamie’s teddy bear “Teddy” speaks to him in Sammy Snyders’ voice with an echo added, and Teddy seems to know a lot more about Jamie’s stirrings of manhood than he does. Shoving people down the pit to feed the trogs is also Teddy’s idea. What’s more, Teddy is indeed alive. This is only confirmed by his glowing eyes at the opening title, and another shot twenty minutes into the film where the bear’s head turns a few degrees and Victor Davies lays the music on extra thick to sell the shock.
Compounding the strange nature of all these story details is a wildly inconsistent tone by the director that veers back and forth from bombastic shock to daft whimsy. Which constantly begs the question, for what type of horror fan was the film intended? Even amongst the few examples of Bad Seed or Village of the Damned type horror films about mischievously murderous tots from this era, there are none so unique as this hallucinatory tale involving trogs, teddy bears and hormonal stirrings directed toward babysitters.
My personal interest in The Pit began from reading a review published on the long running cult film website BadMovies.org. Like those reading about the film for the first time at this moment, my initial response to descriptions of such a strange film was incredulous. Knowing I’d need to see the movie for myself to believe it, I kept an eye out until eventually happening across the VHS. Sitting down with a likeminded fan of the cinema du bizarro, the effect was even more bewildering than we expected. How was this cheesy horror film ever constructed around such a singularly surreal story?
Many years later in a Toronto used bookstore, I happened upon the spine of a paperback entitled Teddy, by John Gault. Taking a look at the cover to pass judgment I was struck by the illustration of a child holding a teddy bear with demonic lights shining from its eyes, and a very familiar tagline. Then I looked at the back cover and nearly fainted – who else but Teddy’s unforgettable askew-eyed face was staring back at me?
Buying and reading the novel immediately, I found that John Gault’s version of the story “based on an original screenplay” by Ian A. Stuart was an astonishingly different take on the same material. While the characters and events were all essentially the same, Gault set a tone of genuine eerie dread that the slapdash film never accomplished, as well as giving some much needed additional focus on the relationship between young Jamie and his evil toy. Gault’s novel Teddy was The Pit as a deadly serious horror story, and the disparity between the two made me all the more curious as to what went awry in the making of what seemed to have been originally intended as a serious horror film.
The novel was published in Toronto. Living there at the time, I attempted to locate Mr. John Gault in the hope that he could shed some light on the secret history of The Pit, having worked on his novel from the original screenplay. Unexpectedly, my efforts led to the contact information of the original screenwriter himself, Mr. Ian A. Stuart – whose initial vision was not only meant to be a serious chiller, but one that would have given the sexual undercurrent a very different context and ended with a twist explaining the fantastic elements of trogs and living dolls.
Mr. Stuart was kind enough to grant the following interview.
How did The Pit get produced?
The idea was originally to produce a Canadian-made horror picture on a relatively low budget with a simple story. I had written such a script, and it was purchased by Amulet Pictures. It was originally called Teddy, but marketed as The Pit because that sounded more dramatic for a horror picture. The producer was Bennet Fode and the executive producer was the late Johnny F. Bassett, who used to own the Toronto Telegram. He was from the Bassett family who controlled the CTV television empire and he was in the film business for a short while as an executive producer.
Just as we were finished putting the pieces of the puzzle together to get the picture ready for production, either Bennet or Johnny Bassett hired Lew Lehman to direct. He was an American director – they were going to shoot in Wisconsin – so he was hired to do the job. Bassett later admitted that they had never seen anything he’d done previously.
How did your original screenplay differ from the film?
It was never meant to be funny – except that we have a tendency to laugh at children who do amusing things. Jamie has a rather dark imagination, he’s discovered a huge hole in the ground in the forest at the bottom of which live these things. He doesn’t know what to call them but he’s heard about cave dwelling early human beings called Troglodytes and mispronounces the word as “troglodies” – not the “tra-la-logs” we heard in the film, which was downright silly. He believes in their reality, and he tells the babysitter who’s living with him about them. She of course doesn’t believe him. Then as he becomes more insistent that they’re real, she becomes more and more annoyed until one day she slaps him in the face, saying he has to stop this nonsense.
From that moment to the end of the film, nothing the audience sees is really happening. It’s all in his mind. There’s a hole in the forest, but there’s nothing at the bottom of it. By slapping his face she’s cut herself off from him. The creatures in his imagination dispose of her. She falls into the pit accidentally, at least in his mind, because he couldn’t have pushed her. That would be an act of agression. It had to be an accident.
Only at the end of the film do you see a psychiatrist saying, “This boy is very disturbed.” The camera pans over and wait a minute, there’s the babysitter. She’s not dead, this has all been in his mind. So he’s taken out into the country to the grandparents, where he meets a little girl and she takes him out in the woods and says “Look what I found, a big hole in the ground where these little creatures live.” He says they’re troglodies, and she says “I know,” and push! He goes down the hole. The audience should walk out of the theater wondering, what just happened there? Was that real or unreal? He gets his just desserts, but in whose mind did it take place?
The traditional structure of a horror story isn’t the novel, it’s the short story that begins very realistically, introduces an element of the fantastic, and then has to wrap up relatively quickly. But the wrap-up is in the last phrase, the last sentence, even the last word, where the story really gives you a jolt. Jamie’s institutionalized, goes out into the woods, meets this other child just like him who says “I want to show you something, I found a big hole in the ground and look what’s at the bottom, troglodies!” He says they eat people, and she says “Yes, I know.” Push! It’s all in the last word. “Push.”
What was the initial inspiration for the story?
From a literary genre point of view, the story is what you’d call the “Demon Child” story – an apparently innocent child who is actually demonic. That story has been told many times. This scenario came from a very real incident of a child’s mental illness, described to me by a friend who’s a child psychologist and knew a boy who’d draw creatures like Jamie’s “troglodies” that he could send after people who did harm to him. This friend also told me, “I’ve had to sign commitment orders for children who are 8, 9 and 10 years old, who are not really children. They’re little balls of hate and fury. And the only reason they haven’t killed somebody yet is they’re not big enough and strong enough. But, someday. Unless you deal with that problem, you have that next murderer, next rapist. That child who’s full of hate and fury is going to react violently against the world.”
I also had a ventriloquist friend who used to talk to an autistic boy using his dummy, the kid would talk to the dummy, but as far as he was concerned, my friend didn’t exist. Putting those children’s perceptions together gave me the idea for Jamie’s particular circumstances in the film. John Bassett actually had the script read by another child psychiatrist who said it was the best depiction he had ever read of the mind a psychotic child. Then, after the film was made he came to me and said “I’m sorry, Ian. You wrote a great script, and all we’ve produced is Grade-B garbage.”
When the decision was made that Teddy and the Trogs in the pit would be real, were you asked to write those changes?
No, Lew did whatever Lew did. When he came on board he sort of said “I’m here now, I’m in charge, I make the decisions, whatever has been done before this is the past and I’m taking charge of the project.” So what you see is Lew’s interpretation.
If the trogs were all in Jamie’s imagination, were they originally meant to escape as they do in the film?
Yes, he has to let them out because he’s run out of nasty people. He’s not accepting the fact he’s created his little creatures in his mind, so how does he manage to look after them? As their creator he has to look after them, so the only thing he can do is put a rope down and let them climb out and look after themselves. And because they’re doing bad things to good people, it’s out of Jamie’s hands, he has to ask for help. The help comes in the form of the adults in the community getting together and destroying this evil that he created. But all this take place entirely in his mind.
Was it your idea to have Jamie see the ghost of Sandy after her apparent death?
Yes, he cannot get her out of his mind and feels responsible for her death even though it was accidental and imaginary.
How did you feel about the way Jamie was portrayed?
The difficulty with making the picture was that you needed a boy to play the lead role, who had to be a good actor and yet be only 8 or 9 years of age. So we found five boys through pretty extensive casting, any one of which could play the role, so that they could all be presented to the director to select one of them. He never interviewed even one of those boys. He started all over again and picked a boy who was 12 years old, looked 14, and was almost muscular. That was his choice to play the role, and this to me was a fundamental mistake. Because this was a story from the mind of a psychotic child and to make him older, put him in a situation where he has almost a romantic relationship with the babysitter rather than that of a child to a young woman, changed the whole nature of the film.
Jamie was meant to be played by a younger child, and when a child is 8 or 9 years old they’re interested in the mechanics, how the plumbing works and they first get interested in sexuality, but they’re not sure why they have the feelings they have. Jamie has some kind of feelings for his babysitter Sandy, and he peeks on her, because children’s sexuality at that level is usually at the peeping and showing stage. A 9 year old relating to a teenage babysitter like that, he’s intimidated because he wants to experience something that he’s not sure what it is because he’s still a child.
The minute you make that child 12, as happened in the film, you change that utterly. Now a relationship between the two of them is possible, and we’ve seen examples of that in the media. The film was changed all together because it’s no longer slightly confused childhood curiosity in which he’s trying to express feelings he doesn’t quite understand. In the scene where she’s giving him a bath, that’s a very different bath from the bath you give a child.
If you say to a 12 year old, “I want you to play a 9 year old,” it’s almost impossible for them to do that, they can’t remember what it was like to be themselves a few years ago. They’re maturing so rapidly, pretending to be less mature is difficult. A 12 year old is closer to a 17 year old than a 9 year old. At one point he tricks a woman who’s mean to him into undressing, to cause her embarrassment, thinking it’s very funny. But that’s typical of an 8 or 9 year old. When Jamie was cast older, the basis for the entire film was changed and instead of being sort of cute, what he’s doing is a little bit sinister and creepy.
Age difference aside, how did you feel about Sammy Snyders’ performance?
I thought Sammy did a pretty good job from his perspective of an older child.
During the bath scene, Jamie seems to make a reference to molestation by his mother, asking Sandy if he knows why his mother washes him so much. Was that your intention?
I don’t remember this line, and there was never the slightest suggestion that his mother did this, so it may have been something Lew had Sammy insert.
How did you feel about the way the trogs in the pit were depicted?
I’m not the first one who’s noted that something you imagine is more horrible than something you’re shown. Almost every horror movie’s anticipation of seeing the monster is blown out the window when the monster finally appears. Of course, modern special effects can produce something quite scary and realistic, but to put suits on dwarves and have them running around pretending to be monster – if you see that for long enough you begin to laugh. You’ve done the worst thing a horror movie can do, which is step over the line between fantasy and the ludicrous.
So making someone believe for a long time in monsters that are running around, if they’re shadowy things that you can hardly see – little yellow eyes in the dark – something scuttling around in the leaves, this you can believe in because you don’t know what it is and your mind creates the image. The minute it’s staring you in the face, it’s a dwarf in a suit. And their eyes were lights! They actually put lights behind their eyes. Unbelievable.
How did you feel about the way Teddy was depicted?
With the teddy bear it was pretty close to what was originally written. It just depends how effective you are with the special effect, how realistic is the teddy bear. If you think it’s just a kid with a stuffed toy and the stuffed toy moves on its own, that should startle you and give you a little shiver up and down the spine.
Was there supposed to be as much nudity in the film as there is?
The inclusion of nude scenes was almost mandatory at the time to get an “R” rating which was presumed to be required for the commercial horror audience. Only in one scene was it really essential, when Jamie was peeping on Sandy in the shower, she wouldn’t be wearing clothes. Probably the most ludicrous fact about the shoot was that the director’s wife refused to let him shoot the nude scenes, so I had to shoot them. I was a director with several films to my credit so it wasn’t technically difficult, but the only scene involving nudity the director was allowed to film was the “skinny dipping” scene because the actress he hired for the part was his daughter!
Have you read the novelization by John Gault, under your original title “Teddy”?
Yes, and it was good for what it was. I actually met with Gault, but the producer had me writing a completely different script at the time, he didn’t want me to be bothered with the novelization. I was busy working on the next script while Lew was shooting and Gault was writing the book.
What are your thoughts on The Pit today?
People still contact me after seeing the film – which amazes me to no end – to say that although it wasn’t a good film they felt there was something else going on under the surface. I tell them that’s the thing the director should have got, but didn’t get because he really didn’t care. He just saw it as a job, making a Grade-B horror film. It could’ve been a better film, but enough of the original script remained, I’m happy to say, that some people are still talking about this long after the fact.
Sincerest thanks to Mr. Ian A. Stuart for this interview!